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Lower Merion’s new zoning code is a love letter to suburbia | Inga Saffron

But the new code also shows that suburbs are beginning to think about density and walkability.

A house in Minden Manor, the historic 1920s neighborhood in Lower Merion by prolific architects-builders Wallace & Warner. The traditional design and slate roof are typical of houses in the neighborhood.
A house in Minden Manor, the historic 1920s neighborhood in Lower Merion by prolific architects-builders Wallace & Warner. The traditional design and slate roof are typical of houses in the neighborhood.Read moreGreg Prichard

Cities across America are deep into a conversation about the connection between density, housing affordability, equity, and urban success. It came as something of a shock last year when Minneapolis, that model of Midwestern rectitude, decided to make single-family zoning merely an option, rather than a requirement, in the hope of supercharging apartment construction and lowering housing costs. Philadelphia continually wrestles with how to preserve its old, human-scaled neighborhoods, while keeping rents affordable.

Out in the leafy suburbs, of course, the conversation runs in the opposite direction. Maintaining property values is what drives local passions. But there are stirrings of change.

As one of the wealthiest communities in the country, Lower Merion Township isn’t exactly a bellwether, but its new zoning code offers a glimpse into the conflicted soul of the suburbs. The rules, which come up for a final vote at the Board of Commissioners meeting on Sept. 18, enshrine some of the most cherished — and exclusionary — features of 1950s suburbia. Big lots. Big houses. Big requirements for off-street parking. Affordable housing and sustainable construction barely rate a mention.

But before you start hating on Philadelphia’s well-heeled neighbor to the west (median household income, $127,000), know this: Lower Merion is also going further than most of its peers to create pockets of density near transit and encourage walkability throughout the township.

The proposed code is strong on preservation — of buildings, neighborhoods, green space. The rules even legalize granny flats and garage apartments, known in planner-speak as Accessory Dwelling Units, a progressive idea that Philadelphia is only just now taking up. As long as you don’t tear down one of Lower Merion’s storied estates, you also will be able to divide the old mansions into apartments or use them to house an institution.

Of course, preserving suburbia as we know it continues to be the code’s overriding mission. The township should remain a “functionally integrated suburb of Philadelphia without becoming urbanized,” its 2016 comprehensive plan declares, using italic letters to drive home the point. Based on Lower Merion’s computer models, population growth will actually slow under the new zoning code. The township had been expected to expand from 60,000 to 90,000 residents before the proposed changes. Now it should max out at 70,000. Can you imagine if a city tried to cap its growth?

For all that, Lower Merion’s approach has something to teach Philadelphia and other big cities about how to organize density smartly.

As befitting such a resource-rich town, Lower Merion was able to hire a blue-chip planner to help its staff develop the new zoning code: Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. A founder of the influential Congress for New Urbanism, which promotes traditional architecture and street plans, she helped both Miami and Coral Gables plot their futures. She also happens to have grown up in Lower Merion’s Bryn Mawr neighborhood and is a fervent admirer of the township’s great, early-20th-century architecture.

Unlike Philadelphia, Lower Merion opted for a form-based zoning code, which encourages new buildings to mimic nearby structures in size and use. That’s a more sensitive approach to zoning than the jam-it-all-together version Philadelphia adopted in 2011.

Because Lower Merion was built around the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Main Line,” it has always been a unique urban-suburban hybrid, with dense, transit-oriented villages like Ardmore and Bryn Mawr, and rolling country estates farther out in Gladwyne and Penn Valley that are totally car-dependent. The form-based code treats the two halves as different places, preserving the storybook version of the Main Line while still allowing density near the train stations.

Because of that split, the tony, western half, where corporate titans like John T. Dorrance built palatial villas in the 1920s, will continue to exist as a preserve of extreme privilege. The minimum allowable lot size will now be a gargantuan two acres. That means that a low-income, single parent, eager to send her children to Lower Merion’s excellent public schools, doesn’t have a prayer of finding housing there (except, perhaps, as a live-in housekeeper). But then, neither will most middle-class families.

That certainly sounds like Exclusion 101 and a way to maintain racial and economic segregation.

Plater-Zyberk argues that there are public benefits to justify the approach. The large lots are intended to limit sprawl by preventing the big estates from being carved into conventional subdivisions. Keeping the area lightly developed, she maintains, is also good for the environment because the large lots “operate at a regional scale as a greenbelt to the city.”

Plater-Zyberk also doesn’t buy the idea that limitless growth is good. Cities aren’t like “fried eggs where the yellow center is continually expanding.” To that end, the code concentrates most of the new density in Lower Merion’s traditional town centers, near the Ardmore and Bryn Mawr train stations.

These also happen to be the places where you’ll find Lower Merion’s most affordable housing: small Arts-and-Crafts-style cottages, twins, rowhouses, even apartments above the Lancaster Avenue shops. In the last few years, downtown Ardmore and Bryn Mawr have undergone a dramatic revival, thanks to their increased density. With breweries and cafés, their shopping streets could easily pass for a Philadelphia restaurant row.

Given the recent battles over new condo projects, such as Dranoff Properties’ One Ardmore Place, it was brave of Lower Merion’s planners to designate these areas for more new construction. A fight is already brewing over a proposal to replace an Ardmore car dealership with two, five-story apartment buildings.

Part of the concern is that the new housing will — wait for it — lead to gentrification and higher housing costs, much like what Philadelphia has seen in the once-affordable rowhouse neighborhoods of Fishtown and Point Breeze. “It’s always been a red herring to think that new construction is going to reduce cost of housing, because new housing always costs more,” Plater-Zyberk says.

Although we tend to think of Lower Merion as an endless expanse of single-family homes, it has produced a lot of apartment buildings, mainly near the City Avenue border with Philadelphia. They’re home to 30 percent of the population. Christopher Leswing, the township planning director, estimates that nearly 2,000 units are in the pipeline. But guess what? Virtually all will rent or sell at luxury prices.

The lack of affordable housing, he says, has become a problem for service workers who staff the booming retail areas. Even township employees have trouble affording a place to live in Lower Merion.

Daniel Bernheim, Board of Commissioners president, recently set up a committee to study ways to create more affordable housing. The township also is putting together a fund that could be used to preserve Lower Merion’s existing stock of low-cost housing, or perhaps build new. Mike Leibowitz, president of the nonprofit Lower Merion Housing Corp., which cobbles together grants for affordable housing, would welcome the help. In the three decades since his group was founded, it has succeeded in creating just two dozen subsidized units.

Until recently, cities have shouldered almost the entire burden of providing America’s affordable housing, especially public housing for the very poor. As suburbs become denser, and inequality grows, they should pitch in. Not everyone will want to live in Lower Merion or other suburbs, but everyone should have an opportunity to make that choice.